The Ister

If there’s one thing to be said about Australian cinema at present, it’s that those of us who actually care about it – a number that’s rapidly dwindling, let me tell you – are currently caught in a state of what can only be described as perpetual disillusionment. It’s true. Year in and year out, those of us with a vested or merely casual interest in the resurrection of Australian cinema will dutifully buy into the hype surrounding one or two government-funded “quality” or “prestige” projects that will be praised almost unanimously before fading away into the hazy nothingness from whence they came. After last year’s AFI-winning Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) failed to single-handedly kick-start the industry (at least in terms of box office receipts) the initial excitement that had surrounded it spontaneously combusted – along with the picture itself, it seems, which has all but disappeared from memory.

Each year has its own Japanese Story or two; films that are expected to forgive us our sins and deliver us from some sort of commercial and aesthetic evil, but which ultimately fail to do anything of the sort. It’s not that these pictures are particularly “bad” in the usual sense of the word. But none of them are particularly “good” either. Certainly, none of them are “great”, and none of them – “wunderkind” director Cate Shortland’s Somersault (2004), for example – are going to take Australian cinema to the place it needs to be: a place that, in my opinion, cannot be reached until our outdated notions of a “national” cinema (notions that are so blindingly, detrimentally obvious in almost every one of these government-funded “quality” pictures) have been completely revised, or done away with.

The Irrelevancy of a National Identity

The 1970s in Australia were a time of social, political and artistic upheaval. The Australian public was actively and passionately searching for a cultural identity that it could call its own. With the intervention of the Gorton and Whitlam governments in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Australian national cinema became a place for this cultural identity to be discovered and cultivated; both notable and commercially successful as a result of its “cultural mission”.

This was a cinema that offered its audience a workable national identity, an image of themselves that, arguably, a large part of the domestic audience accepted as being a fairly accurate – or at least appealing – representation. That this representation was either grotesque and vulgar (as in “Ocker” pictures such as The Adventures of Barry McKenzie [Bruce Beresford, 1972], Alvin Purple [Tim Burstall, 1973] and Don’s Party [Bruce Beresford, 1976]) or increasingly (if unintentionally) self-important (as in “Renaissance” or “Quality” pictures such as Picnic at Hanging Rock [Peter Weir, 1975] and My Brilliant Career [Gillian Armstrong, 1979]) is beside the point. Both the government funding bodies and the filmmakers themselves were offering the audience a representation that the vast majority approved of and – in the case of the “Renaissance” pictures in particular – could strive towards. These were not merely representations, but prototypes. And in the end, that’s all that mattered.

For a while, anyway. In 1975, with the arrival of colour television in Australia, cinema attendances dropped by approximately 30% (1). The national identity offered by the cinematic “Renaissance” wasn’t what Australia was after anymore. Writes Tom O’Regan, “what Australian culture needed was contemporary representations, not nostalgia films. Australians needed to be resituated within their own culture and history with new and more relevant symbols than that of the Australian legend, mateship [and] the Aussie battler.” (2) The question of national identity – who or what an “Australian” was (an unanswerable question, but there it is) – was once again up for grabs. But who was there to answer it?

While the prototypes offered up for Australians to aspire to in the late 1970s and early 1980s were increasingly irrelevant to domestic audiences, there were precious few filmmakers and films left in the revival’s wake to pick up the slack. But maybe it was the audience’s need for an all-encompassing and singular national identity for Australia that had disappeared, and thus maybe the filmmakers had begun to flog a dead horse.

If so, then this certainly remains the case today. Australian feature films are so preoccupied with what they believe – incorrectly, in my opinion – to be the obligation of Australian cinema that they ultimately fail to speak to anyone at all – certainly not the Australian audiences, who don’t want to be spoken at, but with; something that films such as Somersault and Tom White (Alkinos Tsilimidos, 2004), as hard as they try to break the pattern, cannot help but do. They say “this is Australia and these are Australians”, when really it’s not and they’re anything but. When all is said and done, and when the aforementioned hype has faded away, they’re really just hybrid successors to the prototype-offering pictures of the 1970s – broad cultural caricatures that may look and sound Australian but have nothing important to say about this or any other country at all.

How could the vast majority of Australian filmmakers, many of them genuinely talented, assume that the raison d’être of Australian cinema has remained unchanged for the last three decades? I would argue that is perhaps not the filmmakers themselves (although their willingness to bend over and take it is reason enough in my mind for disdain), but the funding bodies whose concept of Australian cinema and its role has remained stagnant, lifeless and restrictive. And in a country of increasing conservative and borderline fanatical politically correct repression, this is most certainly not a good thing.

(In the interest of avoiding confusion, I should point out that I’m talking about political correctness as being the “avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalise or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against” (3). I’m also not talking about it in a general sense, but in an overly zealous one that tiptoes along the line “discrimination in favour of”.)

Shooting Through Conservative Lenses

Somersault

Would it be wrong of me to suggest that the “national identity” of the current Australian cinema is almost entirely a by-product of an overly conservative government and its funding bodies? As Peter Sainsbury argued in his address to the 2002 Australian Screen Directors Association, “films emerging from a given funding system largely reflect the values and processes at the heart of their funding organisations, whatever they may be” (4), a notion that – in Australia, at least – is really a kind of death knell. If the national identity suggested by Alvin Purple in the 1970s was a politically incorrect one, then (in comparison) that which is offered by Somersault today is not only irrelevant to modern Australians, but nauseating in its politically correct content as well.

Somersault, despite a couple of strong points, is painfully methodical in its depiction of the “real” Australia, dutifully (and oh-so-tastefully) hitting every base – and every “issue” – that it can on its way to fulfilling its “cultural mission”. Being careful not to marginalise anyone or anything, Somersault somehow manages to cover disability, drug and alcohol abuse, broken families and homosexuality (a staple “issue” that finds itself being “explored”, however shallowly, in a number of other recent Australian films, including Tom White and Lantana [Ray Lawrence, 2001]). Particularly offensive is the absolutely irrelevant and unnecessary autistic brother in Somersault, whose condition is quite disrespectfully confined to the margins of blatant and overly-saccharine symbolism. Not one of these “issues” is treated with any dignity whatsoever: rather, they’re simply approached as checkpoints that need to be hit by filmmakers in order to obtain financing from our conservative government funding bodies. “Your film doesn’t have a token homosexual character in it? No autistic hobos? Nothing about Reconciliation? Well, then, no soup for you!” It’s a sad state of affairs.

Of course, the filmmakers themselves – the projects of whom are presumably conceived without this slew of relevant discussion topics in mind – can be forgiven (to some extent) for brushing over the obligatory PC-material imposed upon them by the funding bodies with little more than a passing interest. But films operate as a whole, if I’m not mistaken, and even the elements that don’t particularly interest the filmmaker are still a part of the movie. We can’t just say, “Well, you know, you’ve got to make allowances for Somersault‘s autistic brother, as pointless and therefore offensive as his presence may ultimately be. He’s agitprop.” Wait a minute. We have to make allowances? Well, excuse me, but I don’t think so! The moment that one begins to make allowances for such things is the moment that one begins to settle for second best in a way that, in this country (in every field other than sporting achievement), is already rampant enough. Submission is the first step on the path to apathy, and apathy is a very dangerous and insidious thing indeed.

It is for this reason that the filmmakers themselves can only be forgiven to a certain extent – for while the politically correct content is not (always) of their own devising, it’s still there, in the films. They have submitted, relented and given in to a kind of aesthetic oppression, and for taking that first step down the road of pure, unbridled apathy, they must be held responsible. Dependence on government funding bodies, it seems – or at least, on those in this country – is little more than a barrier to artistic and creative freedom. The time has come to break away from the constraints of the Australian industry, not only in terms of achieving greater autonomy in the fields of financing and development, but also of ridding our pictures of their grotesque and deceptive portrayal of the “real” Australia.

The Global, the Specific and the Cultural Caricature

Of all the films that I’ve seen this year, two in particular have stood out as being signposts for the Australian industry at present: Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold (2003) from Iran, and Kim Ki-duk’s Samaria (Samaritan Girl) (2004) from South Korea. Where films like Tom White and Somersault are still tangled up with the irrelevant cultural mission of 1970s Australian cinema, trying to provide us with a government-approved national identity that we no longer need, Crimson Gold and Samaria (along with a slew of other films that include, off the top of my head, Before Sunset [Richard Linklater, 2004]; A Good Lawyer’s Wife [Im Sang-soo, 2003]; Head-On [Fatih Akin, 2003]; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [Michel Gondry, 2004] and, perhaps to a lesser extent, The Saddest Music in the World [Guy Maddin, 2003]) move beyond the representation of broad and simplistic cultural caricatures (see Bill Hunter in, well, just about anything) and into the realm of something far deeper and far greater – a “global” cinema that is at once both culturally specific and thematically universal, and which doesn’t yield in utter complicity to the idea of its being part of a national cinema. Of course, in Panahi’s case, his films can’t be seen in Iran anyway.

Crimson Gold

Cinema need not be “Iranian”, “Korean”, “American” or “Australian” it need only be cinema, pure and simple. In contrast to Crimson Gold and Samaria, which are very much products of their respective countries, but which transcend the limitations of the concept of national cinema, contemporary Australian features are concerned with little more than being just that: “Australian”, and labelled so accordingly. These films are not concerned with people – not even with Australian people – but with outdated and incorrect concepts of what Australian people are, were, should or could be. This is not to say that Australian filmmakers should just start ignoring Australia, of course. Jafar Panahi’s concerns are quintessentially Iranian, for example, just as Ki-duk’s are Korean, Linklater’s are American and Maddin’s are Canadian (and around and around we go). But there’s far more to them than mere nationalistic labels, and that’s an important difference. There is, however, little more to Somersault and Tom White than their status as Australian pictures, and I would argue that the positive reaction of the Australian critics thus far can be put down – almost completely – to their being this year’s apparent “saving graces” for the industry.

There’s a distinct difference between the ‘cultural mission’ shared by these two films and that of “global” cinema. Somersault and Tom White are concerned with nothing more than presenting, often misleadingly, the idea of Australians to Australians; Crimson Gold and Samaria are concerned with presenting actual people (who just happen to live in Iran and Korea respectively) to actual people (who may or may not live in Iran or Korea and most probably don’t). The lives of actual people are more important than the lives of broadly drawn caricatures, and these “global” filmmakers talk with us, where Australian filmmakers, for far too long now, have talked at us.

Conclusion (Take Heed The Ister)

The best and most significant Australian feature of the year thus far (and I don’t see a better one coming along, to be honest) has been The Ister (David Barison and Daniel Ross, 2004), and I make this judgement based on both the quality of the film itself and on its importance to Australian filmmaking. The film’s remarkable content and form aside, The Ister could well become a milestone in a new era of autonomy and creative freedom in the Australian cinematic landscape, if only we allow it to be – it’s a fine example of what Australian filmmakers can do when they start to think outside the square they live in. This feature, which is based on a 1942 series of lectures by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (now that’s a pitch to take to the AFC) was made without any government assistance at all. Love it or loathe it (and most responses are indeed extreme ones), here are two filmmakers that one cannot help but admire: they were able to make a 189-minute video-essay that relies heavily on audience ‘participation’ without a dollar of government funding, only to have Adrian Martin call it “the most intellectually rigorous and searching film ever made in this country” (5). Now, that’s success. And The Ister‘s a revelation.

One can only begin to imagine the number of singular and original films (narrative or otherwise) that could potentially get made in this country if more of our filmmakers would just sit up, open their eyes and see that they have a greater chance of making the films that they want to make if they were to bypass the traditional means of film financing and distribution. This is the first hurdle – and a fairly major one, admittedly – but clearing it makes the second, that of content, much easier to approach (after all, political agendas mean that the two are practically joined at the hip). Of course, not every film needs to be as commercially unattractive as The Ister might appear to be, but similarly the Australian audience (to whom films like Somersault try and sell their dubious representations of Australian life) need not be looked upon as the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to why a film gets made in this country either. Autonomy from the system – artistically, at least – is a more-than-viable option.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that all of our problems would automatically go away if the funding bodies suddenly ceased to exist and if everyone took up microbudget filmmaking for a living. Certainly, mediocre films would still be getting made. But something must be done, and soon, and this here is but one possible solution of (hopefully) many. Creative freedom like that which is not readily available to filmmakers in this county (through the standard channels of film financing, at least) may not cure the disease, but it might just send it into remission.

The gatekeeper of Australian cinema is the government and its funding bodies – restrictive, oppressive and overly conservative – and the “saving grace” for both the Australian industry and its cinema as an art form is not a disappointing prestige picture once or twice a year. Instead, it’s the long overdue death of this gatekeeper and his agenda – a death that films like The Ister could, should and hopefully might just signify the beginning of.

Endnotes

  1. Tom O’Regan, “Australian Film in the 1970s: The ‘Ocker’ and the ‘Quality’ Film”, Ozfilm website, accessed September 2004.
  2. O’Regan.
  3. Wordnet definition, accessed September 2004.
  4. Peter Sainsbury, “Visions, Illusions and Delusions: Part II”, Realtime no. 54, April–May 2003.
  5. Adrian Martin, “The Ister”, Brisbane International Film Festival program, 2004.

About The Author

Matthew Clayfield is a journalist, screenwriter and critic currently based in Sydney, Australia.